Health Effects of Excessive Internet Use
According to a Recent Search, Being constantly interrupted can lead to a temporary loss of upto 10 lQ points (smoking marijuana sees a drop of only four points).
On a typical working day my desk set-up looks something like this: on my PC I’ll have two email accounts open, one for work and one for personal stuff. I’ll have a browser with tabs open on Facebook and Twitter, plus local and international online news pages. I’ll be signed into Instant Messenger through my work account as well as Facebook’s chat function, and I’ll have my iPhone on my desk next to my regular phone Every bleep and hoot is a potential distraction. And a small army of colleagues around me are doing exactly the same thing. It’s a miracle I ever get anything done.
Social media expert Thomas Crampton sums up my problem when he says ‘the Internet Is making us stupid”. It sounds counter-Intultlve given the bottomless archive of facts, analysis and skateboarding accident footage it gives us access to, but there’s a growing body of debate and research examining the effects of Information overload, the irresistible pull of social networks, the impact of multitasking and the consequences of being constantly connected to everything by smartphone. Its something most of us will have experienced — days frittered away in a fog of fascinating Wikipedia entries and pictures of monkeys in hats, the border between work and home blurred by always-on communications. My plan is to switch off for a week to untangle how these things affect my life, and to evaluate the various strategies for dealing with them. The aim isn’t to ditch technology altogether, but to break the cyde of compulsive use and optimise the time I spend with it. I use a tool called FocalFilter, which blocks chosen internet sites after a pre-set time limit, to restrict my time on the usual distractions to a total of one hour a day. I feel like a 40-a-day smoker being given a single nicotine patch. I recall that scene from Trainspotting with the creepy baby crawling across the ceiling, and then have to resist the urge to instantly You Tube it. This is an excellent start.
TWITTER YE NOT
The very first day of my week’s disconnection is a revelation. I know I occasionally get pulled away from work by an interesting article posted on Twitter, and I have a bordering-on-compulsive urge to click the ‘send/receive” button on my email every few minutes. But it isnt until I shut down the source of these distractions that I realise the effect it has been having. That Monday morning. after I clear my weekend inbox, I catch myself frantically scanning the borders of my screen rather than focusing on the middle. I am, subconsciously, looking for something else to do.
I have multiple things to check and refresh — email, Twitter, Facebook, news — and if something catches my attention on any one of these steps, then by the time rm done reading it I’m ready to start the cycle again, like that mythological Greek bloke — the one who was doomed to roll a stone up a mountain for eternity What was his name again? It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to Google it. As Crampton says, “with the
arrival of the Internet, humans have developed the perfect medium for distraction”. This Isn’t just because there are lots of things to look at, but because our brains are wired to hunt them down, discard them and keep hunting. Heard of dopamine? It’s a chemical neurotransmitter that plays a huge part in both addiction and reward-driven learning. Recent research suggests that, rather than causing pleasure itselL dopamine is released by the brain to encourage us to seek pleasure. It’s about the buzz of anticipation rather than the glow of satisfaction — and this anticipation is the stronger impulse. A recent study from Stanford
University in the US scanned the brains of subjects while they were engaged in a gambling simulator, and found that the possibility of winning stimulated greater brain activity than actual winning did. Go figure.
But what’s all this got to do with me checking my Twitter feed every five minutes? Dr Susan Weinschenlc a psychologist and author who blogs at whatmakes the mrlicknet, says “the dopamine-seeklng system keeps us motivated to move through our world, learn, and survlv&. From an evolutionary standpoint its an aid to survivaL In today’s world, it threatens to trap us in a loop of agitation.
“Dopamine starts us seeking then we get rewarded for the seeking, which makes us seek more,” Dr Weinschenk explains. “It becomes harder and
harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our phones to see if we have a message or a new text.”
I sure recognise this. It perfectly describes my restless cycling through web pages and also explains the giddy thrill of seeing a “new message” alert. Dr Welnschenk specifically mentions that these alerts can be a dopamine cue; my brain is so conditioned to respond to the arrival of new mail that, more than once, I’ve emailed myself a document, quickly forgotten about it, and then experienced a tiny jolt of excitement at seeing my own message a few seconds later. On this Monday morning, with my browsers dosed and with only work to focus on, I feel calmer, the chemical buzzing less intrusive. I get plenty done and — this Is something I didn’t expect — find myself feeling fresher at the end of the day. There’s a good reason for this.
Although busy modem workplaces often demand that we give attention to more than one objective at a time, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that multi-tasking is not only difficult but had for us. A study at the University of Utah in the US recently found that just 2.5 percent of subjects could successfully multi-task without damaging their performance Worse still, a Stanford University study found that regular multi -taskers were worse at filtering irrelevant information (such as email and Twitter alerts), at storing Information and switching tasks than others. In other words, even trying to multi-task could be softening up your brain for regular work.
Other gloomy facts: being constantly interrupted can lead to a temporary loss of up to 10 IQ points (smoking marijuana saw subjects drop only four IQ points), while a University of California study from 2008 concluded that workers who experience more interruptions had to deal with “a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration and more time pressure”. Knowing all this, I can only get more focused and productive from now on, right? Not quite — my second day of disconnection turns out to be less successful than the first, thanks to
a unusual deluge of (almost entirely work-related) emails. Even with just the one inbox to worry about, I find my concentration broken by meandering group conversations and distracting back-and-f orths. This is because once I’m engaged in an email conversation I keep on checking back for a response. Partly this is thanks to the same dopamine mechanisms that make tripping from link to link so exhilaratin& But even with a single source of stimulation I find the lure of another message very powerful. The reason for this is our mate dopamine again — it responds to Irregular rewards over and above boring old predictable ones.
This Is sometimes called the “Skinner Box” principle, after the behavioural scientist Dr B. F Skinner. While at Harvard, Dr Skinner conducted tests in which he placed two sets of rats in an enclosure with a lever. One set were given food pellets regularly, for instance every 10 pulls of the lever. The other were given pellets at no fixed pattern. The Irregular rats were not only more stimulated, but continued to hammer the lever for far longer after the rewards were stopped than their counterparts. Now replace the lever with my sendlreceive button, and you’ll see what behavioural economist Dr Dan Arlely means when he says that email makes me very much like a rat sniffing for food pellets. “Most of your email Is junk and the equivalent to pulling the lever and getting nothing in return.” he explains. “But every so often we receive a message that we really want. Maybe It contains good news about a job, a bit of gossip, a note from someone we haven’t heard from In a long time or some important piece of Information.” Lesson learned, and the next day I follow advice I receive from Dr Welnschenk after I (ironically) email her a cry for help.